Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Nagisa Oshima | 日本春歌考 (Nihon shunka-kō) (Sing a Song of Sex / A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs)

death for real
by Douglas Messerli

Nagisa Oshima, Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, and Toshio Tajima (Screenplay) Nagisa Oshima 日本春歌考 (Nihon shunka-kō) (Sing a Song of Sex / A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) / 1967

Similar in some senses to Oshima’s film of the following year, Three Resurrected Drunkards, his 1967 film, Sing of Song of Sex, also titled, much more appropriately I would argue, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, is a much more abstract and unresolved work that doesn’t quite know what to do with its four leading schoolboy rebels.
     Certainly, we can comprehend this work, in part, as being in the tradition of other nasty schoolboy affairs such as Zero for Conduct, Zazie in the Metro, and most notably, The Clockwork Orange, the incendiary foursome of Ohsima’s world—led by slightly more intelligent, confused, and coldblooded Nakamura (played by pop singer Ichiro Araki), along with Ueda (Koji Iwabuchi), Hirori (Kazuyoshi Kushida), and Maruyama (Hiroshi Sato)—begin as sort of provincial bad-boy school kids taking their final examinations in Tokyo and end up through their increasing violent fantasies as misanthropic rapists and imaginative and, ultimately, real murderers. Whether or not they are also xenophobic, Korean-haters, is open to question.

      Their alcoholically-inclined and apparently lecherous teacher, Mr. Otake (Juzo Itami, director of the later popular Tampopo) licentiously invites them to join him at what appears to be a sex-club called “The Lawrence,” an invitation they reject with disgust, attempting to link the strange English name with possible associations such as the author of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover and with Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence, but also recognizing that it has no specific meaning (to me, it sounds somewhat like an effete gay bar, a thought which is encouraged by Otake’s unnecessary squeezes of their facial features; yet there’s evidence in Otake’s behavior to suggest he is anything but heterosexual). Indeed the boys, quite by accident, after unintentionally leading a demonstration against the reestablishment of Founder’s Day (an event banned by the Allied occupation after World War II)—reminding one a bit of Charlie Chaplin’s leading a Communist protest in Modern Times—discover Otake with a woman, following the couple as they make their way in two directions, choosing to track the woman, whom we later discover is Otake’s girlfriend, Kazuko (Oshima’s wife, Akiko Koyama) to her office. These activities, however, merely represent their boredom. 
     What they’d truly like is to track down the beautiful woman who they spotted in the test room with them, No. 469 (Kazuko Tajima), a name arrived at by her seat number during the examination. 
     Despite their dismissal of Otake, however, they and three women students are all somehow attracted to him, and find themselves that evening, sharing a table with him at a local Tokyo bar, where the women, obviously spellbound by him, peel his shrimp and serve him up glass after glass of beer. The boys look on in amused disinterest in their professor’s pedantic fulminations until, quite out of the blue, he begins a rather long disquisition about folk, erotic, and bawdy Japanese songs which, he argues, he the way for Japan’s oppressed to express their feelings. The song that most clicks with the boys is one in which, in stanza after stanza the song’s hero(es) bed with various young girls, some pretty, others so ugly they must put a bucket over their heads, each stanza ending with “ho, ho!” 
     Otake soon becomes drunk, but still takes them to another late-night hang-out, where they discover the hour to be so late that they have missed their train connections; the professor offer-ing to put them up in hotel rooms, while promising to take them on museum tours the following morning.
     After a series of typical adolescent grabs and jabs of one another, they clumsily attempt to get the girls next door to open up their room so they might fulfill their “licentious” (a world few of them actually know the meaning of) intentions. They fail miserably, Nakamura, discovering when he attempts to write out the word for the girls, that he has lost in pen in Otake’s room. 
    It is at this moment, when Oshima’s movie turns from a kind of Japanese version of a teenage bromance into a very strange movie, as the most mature of these adolescent figures discovers his professor in a drunken stupor, having accidently overturned a room heater and loosened it from its connection, the room beginning to fill with poisonous gas.

      We never know whether or not he has recognized the seriousness of the situation; we only witness him gloatingly singing the bawdy song over the snoring elder. But in the morning, when the boys are told by the girls that the professor as died during the night and that police are investigating the event, the boys suddenly reveal their dismissal and disdain of the world in which they live, mocking the stupidity of their professor’s actions while the girls whimper and cry out in for the sadness and horror of the event.

    From that moment on, Oshima takes his film in a series of utterly different directions, none of them grounded in naturalism. First the boys, together, claim to have purposely killed Otake, terrifying the incredulous girls who immediately catch the first train out of the city. Soon after, we see them, apparently on the underground steps, seated next to what consists almost as a frieze of Korean types, as, singing the bawdy song, they one by one imaginatively rape no. 469 in the examination room itself. It is such brutal event that even these seeming toughs feel slightly abashed at their violent tendencies. One of the girls, Kaneda (Hideko Yoshida), returns, and coming them again, perceives that their claim of murder was clearly an overstatement, a kind of bluff that reveals only their dissociation with the society in which they live.
     Taking Nakamura aside, she sings another kind of song, a song of a Korean indentured prostitute singing to her clients. For a moment, it appears, the insensitive leader of this little “gang” almost seems to be touched by the work, which he half-realizes suggest that the girl is of Japanese-Korean descent. In that recognition, we even wonder whether some of Nakamura’s anger may have something to do with his own heritage. If nothing else, he takes the occasion to explain that he, himself, may have actually been responsible, for not having corrected the situation, for their teacher’s death. Suddenly, she is determined that he tell that truth to Otake’s girlfriend, Kazuko.
      In the very next scene the four buddies are seated at a kind of after-funeral meeting with a larger number of Otake’s males students, discussing what they might include in a large celebratory publication of their professor’s collected works. Even here, ultimately, they hostile boys break up the more proper ceremonies by singing their bawdy song, and after a fight breaks us, Kuzuko orders them all out of her house.
     Somewhat inexplicably, the others discover that no. 469 is hosting a celebration to protest the Viet Nam war, and three of them (sans Nakamura) along with Kaneda attend the obnoxiously Americanized sing-along of most well-dressed young women and men in colorful knit sweaters join in chorus after chorus of This Land Is Your Land and other standard protest songs (all sung in English) of the day. The three delinquents attempt several times to disrupt the event—without success—until Kaneda again sings, microphone in hand, her Korean prostitute lament. 
     The party celebrants, after a pause of confusion, eventually applaud her performance, responding with probably the only song they know about social “outsiders,” We Shall Overcome; and soon after we see a group of the crew-neck sweated boys carrying her off in celebration.
     Meanwhile, Nakumara has returned to Kazuko’s house to convince her of his guilt in Otake’s death. In disbelief, she forces him to play out the entire event, and, in the process, ends up being raped or, perhaps, willingly having sex with the young man. She too, it becomes apparent, is of Korean ancestry, the fact of which has kept her from marrying Otake, and, even more importantly, from “feeling” the pain of life, including her own true feelings for her beloved dead lover. In her after sex conversation with Nakumara, we feel even more sure that he may share some of experiences as she tells a story about a love affair between to, obviously, slave Korean mine workers, one of whom, it turns out, is simply the ghost of the living being.  Its metaphorical implications reiterate her own spectral existence and, once again, suggests why Nakumara is both so brutal and, quite apparently, sympathetic. The two of them decide to join the other three and Kaneda at the home of 469, to whom they have presumably visited in order to admit to their violent fantasies.
      It is here where Oshima’s almost mad tale begins to completely unravel. Kaneda returns dressed in a beautiful gown, the gift, apparently, of the collegiate-like good-boy singers who have evidently raped her before awarding her that prize. Immediately recognizing the situation, Kazuko insists Kaneda remember and retain the pain of the event, demanding that she suffer as opposed to her own divorcement from the world of feeling.

     Again, the furious foursome threaten to break up the event, but this time 469 herself intrudes, and when Nakumara moves forward to admit his own imaginative rape of her, she improbably insists that they all return to the scene of the crime. Her willingness to accept this further theatrical representation of reality, suggests that perhaps, she too, has been born into a Korean-descended family. But it is also possible that she is the pure Japanese-born figure that Nakumara and his friends must sacrificially violate in order to maintain their macho worth within contemporary Japanese society. Nothing in this work is ever completely explained, which is why the film remains so fascinating. What happens lies completely outside of cinematic verisimilitude, as the four again play out their idiotic fantasies (a mix of adolescent visions of sex, nationalist S&M reverberations (still present today in Japanese sexual, heterosexual and gay amine fantasies, and the inexplicable hostility of disenchanted youth).
     Terrified by the increasingly personalized lyrics of their bawdy song, Otake’s former lover, Kuzuko attempts to deliver a long speech of the “true” history of Korean-Japanese royal ancestries. It is a grand attempt to drag the centuries of hatred back into reality in order to stop the symbolic and real sacrifices of life in modern times. Yet, her historical harangues concerning the royal houses and god-appointed emperors on both sides, have utterly no meaning for these dissociated lost beings who kill simply because they can: No. 469, stripped of her clothing by his three friends, is finally faced with a cold-hearted murderer through Nakumara’s resolve; for, the first time in her life, she realizes that this time he is serious, the murder he enacts upon her body, this time is for real.
     If throughout this Oshima film reads more like a treatise on societal violence than a documentary portrayal of it, the work is all the intellectually gratifying because of that fact. There is no logical answer, obviously, about why certain cultures deny other cultures their sense of identity and being; it is always a result of a madness that can only be comprehended, if ever, in retrospect.   

Los Angeles, September 8, 2015

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